By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Thousands of times every day police officers, lawyers and judges ponder what “probable cause” means. The reason, in large measure, traces to Meridian, Mississippi.
There, as Christmas approached in 1965, a horrible crime was committed. An older woman, alone in her home, was attacked by an intruder who came in through a window. The victim knew the race of her attacker – black – and nothing else. He did leave fingerprints on the window.
The crime upset the community – greatly. Meridian is not a metropolis, but it is a decent-sized city by Mississippi standards. Police officers felt compelled to solve the crime.
So, more or less randomly, they started hauling in young black men and fingerprinting them in hopes a match would be found. A total of 24 were fingerprinted until one, Davis, scored a match. He was found guilty at trial, but the case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed his conviction.
The 1969 ruling in John Davis vs. Mississippi was a biggie. The majority ruled that people could not be rounded up and fingerprinted in a process of elimination-type investigation. People could only be taken into custody if there was “probable cause” that the person was involved. Merely being young, male and black, the court said, did not create probable cause.
Since the Davis case, hundreds of others have been reviewed in search of an all-purpose definition of probable cause. True, there were similar cases before, but the Davis case put Meridian on the legal map.
Today, the city is in the spotlight again.
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice, in a formal letter, said the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court and the state Division of Youth Services have 60 days to satisfy the DOJ’s concerns or face a lawsuit.
The letter says a “school-to-prison pipeline that routinely and repeatedly incarcerates children for school disciplinary infractions” exists in violation of probable cause standards and an array of other “constitutionally required procedural safeguards.”
The basic facts are these: Meridian schools follow a practice of calling the police when a teacher or other school official agrees to file a criminal charge against a student. The responding officers do not conduct an investigation, nor do they have a court order. They handcuff the students and take them to the detention center, even when the same allegation, if made outside the school setting, would not have resulted in a custodial arrest.
DOJ lawyers, who conducted the six-month investigation, were more than a little miffed when they were denied access to juvenile courts or their records, but that’s Mississippi law.
Anyway, there are points to note.
In 1965, Meridian police had a crime they wanted to solve and decided that fingerprinting anyone who might have committed the crime would be expeditious. In the current situation, Meridian school officials seeking “order in the classroom” set a policy under which kids who got out of line would be removed from the building.
The 1965 practice worked, in as much as it led to a fingerprint match. The school policy no doubt sent the message school officials felt needed to be sent. Discipline is a big problem. Hauling off offenders seems a rational solution.
Indeeed, many reading this may have no problem with what police did in 1962 and the school policy today. After all, desperate situations require decisive, solution-oriented actions. Many will applaud police and school officials for getting results.
It’s too soon to know whether the DOJ will actually take Meridian and the State of Mississippi to court this time. Federal officials have, time and again, sued to bring an end to what they perceived to be abuses of the rights of Mississippians by local governments.
But it shouldn’t pass without notice that this state, in general, and Meridian, specifically, continue to be the epicenter for questions of this type.
We got the reputation of a state that ignores the Constitution long, long ago. One day, perhaps, we will become known as a state where people in power think about the limitations on their power before they take action – even if those actions achieve the desired results.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.